Don’t Despair

If ever a president had to go, it’s Barack Obama. His progressive fascism has prolonged the recovery for four solid years in a row. From Dodd-Frank and the auto bailouts to stimulus spending and Obamacare, he is easily the most economically interventionist president since the LBJ-Nixon years. In addition to this, he is one of the worst presidents on civil liberties in U.S. history, establishing some of the worst legal precedents imaginable concerning executive detention and even the power of the president to order summary executions of U.S. citizens. He tripled the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, escalated the nightmare of drone bombings in Pakistan, and started a war with Libya that his administration claimed even Congress had no power to stop. Despite his occasional lip service to free markets, peace, and the rule of law, Obama has pushed for the radical expansion of state power in virtually every area he could.

This is the third time in a row I’ve seen a president who surely deserved to be fired become re-elected. In 1996, Bill Clinton, despite an atrocity in Waco, Texas, that took the lives of about 80 American civilians, and numerous other scandals, won in a landslide. In 2004, George W. Bush, despite lying the country into the worst war since Vietnam, a torture scandal, and an awful record at home, defeated John Kerry. And now, Obama, despite one of the worst economic realities ever faced by an incumbent at reelection time and a nearly uninterrupted string of broken promises, was rewarded with another four-year contract.

In each of these cases, we can look to the loser and wonder how he could have lost to such an obviously bad president. In 2004 and 2012 in particular, the answer seems to lie in an opposition campaign that attempted to run against a dismal status quo but without a truly principled alternative. In 2004, foreign policy was the biggest issue, and the Democrats ran someone whom independents saw as an out-of-touch elitist and who had failed to take a principled stand on the war from the beginning. In 2012, with the economy taking center stage, the Republicans ran someone independents also regarded with suspicion—a perfect embodiment of the ruling-class sensibilities despised by the populist right—and who had suffered in credibility due to having orchestrated socialized medicine in Massachusetts, a model for Obama’s major domestic policy initiative of Obamacare.

Romney’s platform was rhetorically and probably ideologically much less hostile to business than Obama’s, but in a very vague sense, without any clear principles to speak of. He flip-flopped on every issue in almost unprecedented ways. He said he wanted to maintain many of the key components of Obamacare, keep the entitlement state largely intact, raise social spending here and there, cut taxes on everyone (although he was never consistent on this), rein in the deficit by cutting PBS, protect the regulatory state, advance protectionism against China, and double the defense budget by 2020. If he were running against anything other than the full-blown radical progressivism of Barack Obama, few fiscal conservatives would have had any honest reason to even consider supporting him. By 1990s standards, he would have been in the left-wing of the Democratic party on economic issues.

Meanwhile, Romney had no meaningful critique of Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record. He cheered on Obama’s very worst policies—the Afghanistan surge, the drone bombings, the sanctions on Iran, and NDAA. He surrounded himself with neocon advisers, PNAC holdovers, and architects of the Bush national-security approach. The Republicans spent four years attacking Obama for being soft on terrorists—Obama, who has turned Afghanistan into America’s longest running foreign war, who rained death on Pakistan, and who killed bin Laden. In the foreign policy debate Romney tried to have it both ways, criticizing Obama for being overly focused on killing as a strategy, but also urging even more interventionism and bigger military budgets. The rejection of those associated with Bush’s foreign policy is a silver lining in the election.

At the same time, despite Obama’s terrible record on the drug war and immigration, Romney managed to come off as even less humane toward the rights of immigrants and victims of law enforcement, getting fewer Hispanic voters than Bush did. Hispanics tend to be among the most enterprising, hard-working, devout, and family-oriented denizens of the United States, a seemingly natural match for what the Republican Party pretends to represent, yet the GOP has continued to alienate large segments of the population by becoming more anti-immigration every election cycle, rather than embracing Reagan’s vision of amnesty and inclusion, a vision that is more popular today than in generations.

The Republican coalition of social conservative culture warriors, militarists, and economic libertarians cannot create a sustainable majority. The Ron Paul followers, who were pushed out of the RNC by establishment partisans who outrageously changed the convention rules mid-stream, refused to come back to the reservation. The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, got a million votes—the second most successful tally that third party has ever earned. Millions more who hate big government surely stayed home instead of voting. Even though Obama represented statism on virtually every front, it appears that most classical liberals and genuine free marketers were not persuaded by Romney—nor were conservative voters during most of the primaries.

This illustrates what Hayek said about political coalitions. A negative program is not enough. A movement for liberty has to be more than anti-socialist or anti-Obama; it has to be pro-freedom across the board, and Romney was very unconvincing in pretending this was his agenda. The “Ron Paul Republicans” who won several Congressional seats also indicate a refreshing shift in the philosophical orientation of many voters who jumped at the chance to support a more broadly classical liberal program than anything Romney offered.

Where’s that leave us? In the short-term, Obama will have a harder time on domestic policy than I think many conservatives and libertarians fear. The last year or more has been wondrously gridlocked. Major legislation has been impossible, with a few exceptions. Romney would have been able to reach across the aisle and pass all sorts of awful things. The budget is still outrageous, thanks equally to both parties, since the Republican House ultimately controls the purse strings. But regulations and major social programs will be hard to pass. The American people voted to maintain some semblance of gridlock. We can hope that the next four years of Obama will be more like the last two than the first two. How long it took Obama to pass nationalized health care, which in the 1990s I had assumed was a fait accomplis in the United States, was actually a good sign. What’s more, the continuing sourness of the economy will be harder to blame on free enterprise than it would if Romney took over and the recession continued or worsened.

Obama’s coalition itself came out strong for this election, but he lost more ground than any incumbent victor since Wilson. He even lost a marginal portion of the black vote. One important part of any freedom strategy will have to be showing socially liberal voters, youth, and minorities why the state is not their friend, why there is no such thing as a free lunch, why the market is morally and functionally superior to the state, and why peace, personal liberty, and property rights are intrinsically linked. Free-marketers have not always done very well at reaching out to these people, but the cause of liberty absolutely demands it.

The wild card that most concerns me is Obama could always take after Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and even Clinton, and become more belligerent after being reelected as the perceived relative peace candidate. Obama could try to go down in history as a truly great president by starting a major war. But again, another major war—the worst thing I could imagine happening—is not something the Republicans actively campaigned against.

There were a lot of disappointments in the other elections. The victory of hyper-progressive Elizabeth Warren bothers me more than Obama’s reelection, in its own way. She articulates the full-blown promise of progressive collectivism even better than Obama, who may believe it at least as much but has found himself forced to moderate his rhetoric, if only slightly. Moreover, California upheld the death penalty and ratified the governor’s awful tax plan.

But all was not lost. Arizona and Missouri and others rejected tax hikes. Louisiana strengthened gun rights. California voted to temper the injustices of Three Strikes. The propositions throughout the country were a mixed bag.

Most dramatically, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use. Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana and Arkansas got within a couple percent of doing the same. These developments spell the beginning of the end of almost a century of misguided marijuana and drug policy. The drug war has been the principal cause of civil liberties violations, mass imprisonment, and militarized policing domestically. There’s a long way to go, but in the short term, the tension between federal and state marijuana policy will continue to expose the contradictions of modern progressivism and the national police statism of the Democratic Party. Either Obama will be forced to back down and allow states to liberalize drug laws, or he will step up the crackdowns on blue states experimenting with drug reform, thereby further discrediting the federal leviathan in the eyes of at least some disenchanted Democratic voters on the margins. This might prove the biggest upside of last night.

Those who can’t stomach the idea of four more years of Obama’s arrogance, warmongering, domestic socialism, corporatism, and crackdowns on freedom might find my silver linings to be thin gruel. But it is a mistake to look for liberty on election night. We must hold our sights much higher than that, and recognize that the struggle for liberty against power has made many gains in the last few centuries, after millennia of power being the norm in almost all societies. I have watched three awful presidents get reelected in a row, and it’s easy to believe the situation has only gotten worse with each year. When I feel like giving up, I only have to consider how much worse freedom lovers must have felt at various times in American history—the abolitionists fighting the entrenched evil of chattel slavery in the 1840s, the anti-racists marching against state enforced segregation and widespread brutality, the peaceniks up against the total wars of Wilson or Truman or LBJ and Nixon. I just consider how lonely it must have felt to be a freedom lover watching FDR get elected four times in a row and by bigger margins than Obama did last night. There are far more principled proponents of liberty now than before. Obama’s reelection is a hard pill to swallow, but with a growing group of educated and principled proponents of the positive program of liberty, the future need not be quite as dreary as many fear.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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